ON APRIL 3, GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM announced a program to relocate thousands of at-risk homeless people into hotel or motel rooms. Through Project Roomkey, the state secured 15,000 rooms with the goal of providing safe housing with wraparound services such as meals, 24/7 security, cleaning services, and medical checkups. Officials reserved the rooms only for individuals who show no symptoms but are high-risk, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines: They must be 65 or older, and/or have underlying health conditions such as severe obesity, diabetes, or severe heart or lung conditions. The state has called the program a success, but to date, only about one-third of these hotel rooms are filled. And there are no data yet showing the program’s effectiveness in preventing outbreaks among the homeless.
Still, local leaders have embraced the idea, especially after the Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to pay up to 75 percent of the costs. Los Angeles County, where about 60,000 homeless people live, announced it would secure 15,000 rooms countywide, while San Francisco set its own goal of 7,000. Other states and cities are launching similar projects: New York City has announced plans to move about 30,000 homeless individuals into hotel rooms (with some pushback from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who says that goal is too costly). Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has ordered shelters to relocate more than 1,000 people into hotels; King County in Washington has moved 400 shelter residents into hotels; North Carolina is also planning to house about 16,500 homeless in hotel and motel rooms, trailers, and college dormitories.
Like the state, some local counties have had trouble filling the hotel rooms. So far, LA County has secured about 2,923 hotel rooms in 28 sites and has placed 2,282 individuals there—about half of them come from shelters and the other half from the streets. The county is far behind its goal of securing 15,000 hotel rooms by April 26. As of May 6, San Francisco has filled fewer than 3,000 of the vacant hotel rooms.
Not all hotel owners support the idea, and some question whether officials can use emergency powers to force hotels to accept certain guests. Governments say hotels should do their part to help the community during an emergency, especially since many luxury hotels have received tax subsidies. It’s a win-win situation, they say: Hotels get some revenue ($75-$100 per room) instead of making zero with vacant rooms. Currently, only about 30 percent of hotel rooms in LA are occupied.
Hotel owners worry about liability and insurance issues, and possible property damage. They’re also worried about how housing the homeless will affect their image and guests who are still paying to use the hotel. The Ritz-Carlton in downtown LA usually charges more than $500 a night for a standard room. Its property includes 224 condo units called The Residences, in which residents pay $1 million to $40 million to live on the 27th to 52nd floors that overlook the downtown skyline. A representative of the Homeowner’s Association of The Residences told the Associated Press that residents worry about safety, security, property values, and overall lifestyle should the hotel shelter homeless people.
One LA city councilmember, Mike Bonin, has said hotels refusing to house homeless people could be a “potential civil rights violation or a case of discrimination.” He co-authored a motion to investigate why hotels are resisting plans to house the homeless, focusing on hotels that have received public benefits. The City Council passed that motion on May 6.
But hotel operators aren’t the only ones resisting Project Roomkey. Several city officials have filed for emergency hearings with a federal judge, saying they were not included in county decisions. Many residents have protested outside local hotels, arguing that housing the homeless population in their neighborhood would place everyone there in danger of an outbreak.